Reporters shouldn't fear to analyze events

In The News

Public Editor

December 04, 2005|By PAUL MOORE | PAUL MOORE,PUBLIC EDITOR

It's not surprising that newspaper readers tend to be more critical when they examine articles that touch on government and politics. After all, politics is something that we all are expected to have an opinion about.

So political stories are frequently scrutinized for signs of bias or lack of balance, and readers sometimes think they find it. Occasionally, such conclusions are based on perceptive and objective analysis. In other instances, the readers' verdicts simply reflect whether their personal views were affirmed.

Reaction to several recent articles in The Sun also shows that readers are even more likely to sound alarms when reporters use interpretation and analysis in news stories on politics and government.

Some readers found controversy deep in a Nov. 23 lead story on The Sun's front page on the indictment of Jose Padilla, the U.S. citizen detained for more than three years without charges.

"The indictment also appeared to be a calculated attempt by the administration to head off the possibility of an adverse legal ruling in Padilla's case from the Supreme Court, which had held against the government in a similar case last summer," wrote Richard B. Schmitt, a Los Angeles Times reporter.

The paragraph had no attribution. The reporter clearly used the phrase "appeared to be a calculated attempt" as a way of interpreting what he considered an important aspect of the U.S. Justice Department's decision-making.

Reader Peter O'Donnell was not impressed.

"After reading this paragraph, I stopped reading the A section and turned to the sports section. Where did this information come from? Where is the attribution? Why should I believe that this is true? I was reading a news story about this indictment and then this paragraph hit me. I want news, not speculation," O'Donnell said.

Without attribution, this paragraph could be interpreted as simply the reporter's opinion.

The information in the paragraph, however, provided needed context for readers and was based on previous reporting and the reporter's knowledge. A quote from an expert source saying something similar might have been preferable, but a good case can been made for its relevance as written.

In The Sun's Nov. 25 front-page article, "Point man Cheney viewed as liability," the third paragraph read: "While Bush struggles through one of the most difficult periods of his presidency, Cheney is increasingly being portrayed as a liability, someone associated with the administration's most divisive issues, including its use of disputed intelligence to justify the war, its policy on torture and its harsh criticism of those who question Bush."

Written by Sun reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis, this paragraph accurately summarizes - and analyzes - the current political situation.

The paragraph, however, was not attributed - even though the story had a number of on-the-record comments that support it. And because this paragraph inspired the matter-of-fact headline, some readers were highly critical.

"And who views Cheney as a liability?" said Norris Tingle. "Some sycophant from moveon.org?"

Dave Baraloto said: "This is a typical example of the Sunpapers putting an opinion on the front page as if it were factual."

But from Barbara Zalesky: "I thought the article was objective and represented both sides of the question. "

Reporter Davis said: "You always want to avoid seeming to argue a point of view in these articles, which can be difficult since they are by definition analytical - taking a slice of a larger story and trying to magnify it for readers so they can understand why it is significant."

In my view, reporting about politics often requires context and analysis. Still, stories containing paragraphs like those mentioned above could have used an "Analysis" label on top of the headline to give readers a clear signal of the article's content. They also could have provided general attribution in those paragraphs to note that this was the opinion of a number of experts.

In a front-page article Tuesday, Davis examined President Bush's goals for his visit to Maryland on Wednesday. It described Bush's commitment to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s re-election and to Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's U.S. Senate campaign. It also informed readers why GOP success in Maryland is important for the president.

"The state might be most important, though, for what it could symbolize for Bush, who has been working to portray his party as one with broad appeal beyond its core conservative supporters," Davis wrote.

This political analysis does not need direct attribution or a label. It is the product of the writer's reporting and knowledge.

Fairness and objectivity are crucial. This does not mean limiting legitimate reporting that may be unpopular.

If newspapers become reluctant to ever interpret and analyze events because of potential accusations of bias, they will be shirking their responsibility to inform and serve readers.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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